Regional Characteristics: Shifts & Analysis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Regions are some of the most important units used by geographers, but they can often change. Let's take a look at how we define regions and see how we can identify the changes that occur within them.


Geographers study geography. You've probably figured that out by now. But how is this done? The study of the physical space in the world, including its landforms as well as how people interact in this space, is a big project. How do you begin to understand this much space? One way is to start looking for common traits that define certain spaces, allowing you to examine the world in smaller units.

What we're looking at is a region, a unit of geography characterized by some form of shared or uniform traits. Regions can be large or small, depending on the criteria you're using to define them. These units are very helpful ways for us to begin compartmentalizing all that space in the world.

Characteristics of Regions

So, what exactly defines a region? That's an important question, and there are actually a number of ways to answer it. A region is any physical area united by shared characteristics, but there are four main ways we can define this.

Physical Regions

Perhaps most obvious are physical regions, those defined by shared physical characteristics. Physical regions are units of physical space that are very similar in their natural characteristics. For example, the Great Plains are a physical region of North America. Within the larger continent, this section of land is defined by a distinct type of land that's different from the mountains and forested hills around it. Characteristics that define physical regions can include landforms, types of vegetation, climate, or other natural features.

The Great Plains are a major physical region of North America

Cultural Regions

Of course, not all regions are purely natural. Cultural regions are units of physical space defined by people who share cultural traits like religion, language, identity, or even food preferences. Within the United States, one way we define the cultural region of the South is by a historic preference for barbeque. Within the South, we can actually identify a number of smaller regions based on different traditional barbeque recipes. Is the barbeque sauce mustard, vinegar, or ketchup based, or is it a dry recipe? This could help define which cultural region of the South you're in.

Cultural regions of Virginia, as defined by folk arts and traditions

Economic Regions

Economic regions are those physical spaces determined by economic interactions. In many countries, border zones are important economic regions where lots of trade occurs. On a larger scale, many countries around the world have created economic regions called economic blocs; these are a group of countries that act as a unit when dealing with the global market. These economic regions are very influential in how international business is conducted today.

Political Regions

Finally, we can also identify political regions, or spaces that share common ideas about political ideologies, the reach of laws, or political power. In a large sense, the countries that share ideas about democracies could be considered a political region of the world. Generally, however, political regions are defined by borders, political constructs that denote the spatial limitations of authority.

When Regions Change

Regions are very useful ways for us to identify major patterns in the world in terms of land use, interactions with physical space, or simply the nature of that space itself. Regions are also interesting, however, because they tend to change. If the Great Plains suddenly became covered in trees, would it still be its own region? If Georgia and the Carolinas stopped making barbeque, would that alter their cultural region? If people started trading more, or less, or if people's political ideas changed, this would impact the characteristics of their regions.

Understanding how and why regions change is one of the main jobs of geographers, and there's no single way to describe these processes. It starts, however, with actually being able to identify change. There are two main ways this is done.

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